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An analysis and brief history of the play by Joseph Addison

The following article is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.

Cato, a tragedy in five acts, by Joseph Addison, was first performed at Drury Lane Theatre, April 14, 1713, with Booth as Cato, Cibber as Syphax, Wilks as Juba, Powell, as Portius, Mills as Sempronius, Ryan as Marcus, Bowman as Decius, Keen as Lucius, Mrs. Oldfield as Marcia, and Mrs. Porter as Lucia. "Nine years before it was acted," writes Cibber, "I had the pleasure of reading the first four acts (which was all of it then written) privately with Sir Richard Steele.... He told me, whatever spirit Mr. Addison had shown in his writing it, he doubted he would never have courage enough to let his Cato stand the censure of an English audience--that it had only been the amusement of his leisure hours in Italy, and was never intended for the stage.... In the latter end of Queen Anne's reign, when our national politicks had changed hands, the friends of Mr. Addison then thought it a proper time to animate the publick with the sentiments of Cato; in a word, their importunities were too warm to be resisted, and it was no sooner finish'd than hurried to the stage." Cibber (who was then a manager as well as actor) continues: "As the author had made us a present of whatever profits he might have claimed from it, we thought ourselves obliged to spare no cost in the proper decorations of it." The result was a great popular and pecuniary success. "The deficiencies of Cato as an acting play were," writes Courthope, "more than counterbalanced by the violence of party spirit, which insisted on investing the comparatively tame sentiments assigned to the Roman champions of liberty with a pointed modern application." As Pope wrote to Trumbull: "The numerous and violent claps of the Whig party on the one side of the theatre were echoed back by the Tories on the other." The play 'ran' for the period, then unprecedented, of thirty-five nights; so that at the close of the theatre each of the three 'managing actors' found themselves the richer by £1350. The epilogue was written by Sir Samuel Garth. In the prologue Pope said of the author and his work--

"There tears shall flow ...
Such tears as patriots shed for dying laws.
He bids your breasts with ancient ardour rise,
And calls forth Roman drops from British eyes.
Virtue confessed in human shape he draws,
What Plato thought and god-like Cato was."

"Of Cato," says Dr. Johnson, "it has not been unjustly determined that it is rather a poem in dialogue than a drama: rather a succession of just sentiments in elegant language than a representation of natural affections." "The character of Cato," writes W.J. Courthope, "is an abstraction, round which a number of other lay figures are skilfully grouped.... Juba, the virtuous young prince of Numidia; Portius and Marcus, Cato's virtuous sons; and Marcia, his virtuous daughter, are all equally admirable and equally lifeless." The play was revived at Covent Garden in January, 1734, with Quin as Cato and with Marcus and Juba omitted; at the same theatre in November, 1754, with Sheridan as Cato, Mrs. Bellamy as Marcia, and Syphax omitted; at Drury Lane in December, 1756, with Mossop as Cato and Mrs. Pritchard as Marcia; at the Haymarket in August, 1777, with Digges as Cato; at Drury Lane in April, 1784, with Kemble as Cato; at Covent Garden in May, 1797, with Pope as Cato and Macready as Marcus; at the same theatre in December, 1802, with Cooke as Cato; and at the same theatre in January, 1811, with C. Kemble as Juba, Mrs. H. Johnston as Marcia, and Miss S. Booth as Lucia. In this last instance, the play, says Genest, "was very properly revived with change of scenes, in order to obviate the absurdities in which Addison had involved himself by making the whole play pass in Cato's great hall." The play was performed in New York in September and October, 1750; in March, 1768, with Mrs. Hallam as Lucia; in February, 1784, with Hallam as Cato; and in October, 1837, with Vandenhoff as Cato, H. Wallack as Syphax, J. Wallack, jr., as Juba, and Mrs. Rogers as Lucia.

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